Wednesday, January 11, 2012

PA's top court takes a pass on local control of gas drilling

The extent to which local counties and towns can set limits on gas drilling operations within their boundaries has been a gray area of the law. And it's not likely to get any clearer soon.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear an appeal of a case involving rules established by Fayette County for well sites, including a prohibition on their location within the flight path of airport runways or within 200 feet of homes.

"Penneco Oil Co., Range Resources and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association filed an appeal of the lower court ruling, hoping the state's highest court would clarify what rules municipal and county governments can apply to drilling," the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported yesterday.

With the court declining to take up the appeal, the gray area of local control will spur additional legal challenges by drilling companies.

Industry mounts a two-front campaign

Deep-pocket gas companies have the advantage over budget-stretched local governments in financing a legal war, but they are not relying solely on their potential success in the courts. 

They've also operating a second front in the state legislature where two "impact fee" bills making their way through the system would deliver a knockout blow to local zoning.

If adopted in their current form, Senate Bill 1100 and House Bill 1950 would strip municipalities of their zoning authority over drilling. The legislation would give gas companies and the state DEP the sole authority to decide where gas wells would be placed.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, says the result would be wells in residential neighborhoods, on preserved lands and historic sites, next to schools and day care facilities and in close proximity to municipal water reservoirs.

Gene Barr, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, takes the flip side of the issue, arguing that uniform regulations are necessary.

"More than 115 municipalities have adopted more than 145 ordinances, including land-use limitations, road use restrictions, noise limits and well-setback requirements. Many are designed to ban drilling activity, " he writes in an op-ed piece today in the Patriot-News.

Action expected after January 17

The two bills, which vary in detail, will be the subject of conference committee action when the legislature returns to work on January 17.

Environmental organizations are planning a "welcome back" rally at 11 a.m. on that date in the Capitol Rotunda to press lawmakers to remove sections of the legislation that invalidate local zoning authority over gas exploration and extraction operations.

Care to add you views on this?  Sound off in the comment box below. If one is not visible, activate it by clicking on the tiny 'comments' line. 

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